The Move to Digital: Why Publishers Want It to Succeed (and what we’ve learned)

Move to Digital

As we study the move to digital reading, we are introduced to new players such as the Worldwide Center of Mathematics, Flat World Knowledge, and others such as Inkling, Kno, and increasingly more. But the more-traditional players, the established textbook publishers, are not far behind and they have their hands in the game as well. Remember, they own the content and while new players like FWK will get some adoptions, the publishers will not give up market share without a fight.

Own the Platform

Kind of like a hedge bet in Vegas when you place your bet to cover your other bets, the publishers are spreading their risk by taking ownership of the industry via  different platforms. McGraw-Hill and Pearson own stakes in Inkling while all six major publishers have stakes in CourseSmart. I think we would be naïve not to believe that if one platform were to really take off (this has yet to happen where there is a de facto standard), the publishers would be wise to invest in or own it. In addition, a successful platform is only as good as the content it delivers.

Own the Content

Academic publishers are working with different platforms to control the price, market share, and content. It will be hard for start-ups to take away significant adoptions from traditional print publishers unless they can prove to faculty and administrations that the books desired by the educational community are available on the platforms or learning systems that educators desire.

Kill the Used Book

Why do publishers really love the eBook/eTextbook? Because it is the first real used-book killer they have found. The publishers have tried for years to shrink the used-book market as it drastically diminishes their sales. They started off by marking teachers’ editions and desk copies, even drilling holes and other tactics to make these books unsellable. Then they began frequently changing the editions, adding components to create packages and bundles, and updating the book (however slightly) to make last year’s copy seem obsolete. With changes requiring publishers to unbundle books and to make ISBNs and prices more upfront, publishers now need to find a new way to keep the used-book business from hurting their overall profit. Enter the digital platform.

And it makes good sense. Consider this: if you can sell a digital book, you remove the used book from circulation by replacing it with one that comes in only a single condition: new digital. As used-book inventory declines, the overall cost of the eBook can increase because its savings is compared to new, not used. The middle price-point and format that has been so attractive to students for so long, becomes phased out.

Now let’s not totally bash the publishers or paint them as bad people; that isn’t the point and they are trying their best to protect their industry. And there are other benefits of eBooks that serve the publishers and may seem less unsavory. Amongst those are that digital also offers other economic benefits such as no warehouse costs, no returned product, lower marketing costs (book samples and such), and no shipping. If the publishers use these lower expenses to drive the digital price lower, the student could potentially win and the publishers would be seen as less of an enemy to college students.


The publishers started off as being excited by the digital opportunity, but appropriately cautious and concerned. They didn’t want to lose all of the content and rights similar to what happened to the music business when Naptster and others started the file sharing services that became so quickly such a slippery slope. Publishers have held on to their content tightly, controlled its release, the rules of distribution, and the price. The challenge that publishers have faced and where they are starting to make up ground is that while they have always owned the content, they haven’t owned the end-users. Students get books from the bookstore, not the publisher. Students get a biology book not a Pearson’s Biology Book. As more learning platforms and spps provide new avenues to deliver content, the publishers have more and more-direct access to the end-user, and that could provide a crucial line of of connection.

Some highlights from our Move to Digital series:

  • Digital systems can correct and guide students in real-time, making teaching more effecting.
  • Professor inertia, a lack of titles, and other challenges are slowing student adoption of digital, despite the hype.
  • Increased student awareness, professor interest, product sophistication and government initiatives are driving consumer trends towards e-textbook adoption.
  • Open-source content may be the answer to rising education and textbook costs.
  • Different students are accessing different content and creating competition, from permanent licensing e-books to temporary access, rental or traditional.
  • The Big Three in digital learning platforms.
  • Customizability in open-source, digital textbooks offer professors more options. Will it overtake standard industry textbooks?
  • The industry should explore price experimentation with digital, and there are ways to do this.
I hope you enjoyed this series! Please share any thoughts, links and news-and I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this again soon!

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